The Young Mr. Pitt (1942)

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Europe is not to be saved by any single man. England, 1783. King George III appoints 24 year old William Pitt (Robert Donat) as prime minister. When members of Parliament refuse to take Pitt seriously, he calls for a general election and wins. He sets to work on a programme of reform, focusing on rebuilding the navy while across the sea in France, Napoleon Bonaparte (Herbert Lom) begins his conquest of Europe. After rejecting an alliance with France, he puts his own mind at ease by selecting Admiral Horatio Nelson (Stephen Haggard) to lead the fleet… Does the Minister propose to defeat Bonaparte by earnest consideration? It’s not the most typical of Carol Reed’s films – you won’t see the visual flourishes for which he would become distinguished even if Freddie Young is responsible for some fine cinematography here. It’s a fairly conventional biography, adapted by Launder and Gilliat from the book by the Viscount Castlerosse, who also contributes to the dialogue (with the parliamentary exchanges based on real speeches in Westminster) and it’s pleasingly busy with sharp lines and buzzing with character, Donat’s face registering as is his wont every injury and sorrow. He ages convincingly, his personal worries – romantic, financial – mirroring Napoleon’s onward march:  Conquerors are invariably upstarts. It’s significant that this was made during World War 2, with a call to arms against such individuals resonant throughout the rise of this iteration of Hitler (rather unfair to Napoleon, I think). This is a lively piece of work, ripe with history, boasting a great ensemble including Robert Morley as Charles Fox, John Mills as William Wilberforce and Phyllis Calvert as Eleanor Eden, with an amusing Albert Lieven playing Talleyrand.  Do not seek fame through war

Night of the Big Heat (1967)

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Aka Island of the Burning Damned/Island of the Burning Doomed. We must avoid injecting fear into an already dangerous situation. Novelist Jeff Callum (Patrick Allen) and his wife Frankie (Sarah Lawson) run a pub called The Swan on the island of Fara, on the English coast.  Jeff hires former lover Angela Roberts (Jane Merrow) as his secretary and she arrives in the middle of an unseasonal and stifling heatwave – it’s winter, yet unusual things are occurring with cars stalling and TVs blowing up and sheep are dying inexplicably. Scientist Godfrey Hanson (Christopher Lee) arrives and rents a room at The Swan, setting up motion sensor cameras and taking soil samples and Jeff confronts him about what might really be happening and discovers that extra-terrestrials are in their midst so it’s time to get local doctor Vernon Stone (Peter Cushing to lend assistance as the temperatures rise and everyone seems to be losing their mind and what on earth is down in the gravel pit? … If the heat goes on like this it could very likely drive us insane!  Adapted by Ronald Liles from John Lymington’s novel, this had previously been adapted for broadcast by ITV in their Play of the Week slot in 1960 and Doctor Who husband and wife screenwriting team Pip and Jane Baker were hired to do this rewrite. This Hammer Films iteration has the key players in the studio and is all the better for it: that alien protoplasm ain’t got nothing on these guys, living in a pressure cooker of sex and fear. It’s nice to see Patrick Allen – that terrifying voice that so dominates my childhood memories is actually quite the thesp:  hark at him explain to his wife what the deal is with the smouldering minx Angela:  I wanted her! I wanted her body! It was completely physical, I promise you! while Lee is his usual earnest self as the de rigeur scientist, completely rational for a change, with Cushing, as ever, battling evil.  Merrow is marvellous as the vamp, going crazy, like everyone, in the sweltering heat. Satisfying sci fi very well handled by Terence Fisher. He’s a peculiar chap – but he’s got guts

 

Wild Rose (2018)

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I’m not a criminal though, I’m an outlaw. Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley), an aspiring country singer and single mother of two from Glasgow is released from prison after a twelve-month sentence for attempted drug smuggling. She goes to her boyfriend’s council flat and has sex with him before reuniting with her mother Marion (Julie Walters) who’s been taking care of her young daughter Wynonna (Daisy Littlefield) and son Lyle (Adam Mitchell). She learns that she has lost her job in the house band at Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry, as a result of her stint away. Marion encourages her to give up her dream of becoming a musician to focus on more practical matters and take responsibility for her family:  Rose-Lynn has never stuck at anything, can’t play an instrument and has never written a song. She takes a job as a cleaner to wealthy Susannah (Sophie Okenedo) who hears her singing and promises to sponsor her to get Rose-Lynn’s hero BBC DJ Bob Harris to listen to her and fulfil her fantasy en route to the real Grand Ole Opry in Nashville … That’s the end of cleaning floors for you.  From a screenplay by Nicole Taylor, this is implausible, irritating and overly generous to its protagonist. In other words, it’s a lot like a country song (not a country and western song, as she has to keep reminding people in her thick Glaswegian accent) and the minutes occasionally drag like hours.  It’s hard to watch a woman be so cruel to small children who she had as a promiscuous teenager and proceeds to ignore even after a year in the slammer. In a film that can’t make up its mind whether it’s a social realist drama (her bed is even shot to look like it’s in a prison cell) or the biopic of a music legend (like all country movies to date) who actually isn’t one, even in her own house, it mints a jawdropping black saviour trope, although Susannah’s streetwise hubby sees through Rose’s act (literally) and hearing some home truths snaps her out of her daydreaming. This feckless girl is such a screwup she even gets pissed on the potentially life-changing train journey to see ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris at the BBC in London and has her bag and money stolen. Perhaps it’s meant to be colouring in her shady character but it’s a damning indictment of people who put themselves ahead of their kids despite the logic. Dramatically and emotionally this is deeply troublesome. Even basketcase Juliet Barnes in TV’s Nashville is better to her daughter. Buckley just looks morose when the script is giving her nothing to play. There are some nice moments towards the end when Walters cracks and a kind of rapprochement is achieved but it’s thin gruel. I blame reality TV:  in an extraordinary admission a few years ago one of these ‘talent’ show’s producers in the UK let slip the astonishing statistic that “80 per cent of our applicants are illegitimate.” Attention-seeking is a way of life for the working classes, innit. Saints preserve us all from delusional aggressive karaoke queens but this has the narrative shape of those bios, which makes the country angle feel tacked on. Herself a reality show graduate, Buckley has an easy charm, a lopsided mouth and can sing the bejesus out of anything but the narrative falls far short of what it should have been and the fantasy ending is built on air, the fish out of water premise turned on its head, back in Glasgow.  She didn’t earn it, actually. Beats mopping floors, I suppose. The score is by Jack Arnold and the songs covered include everyone from Primal Scream, actress/singer Mary Steenburgen and Anna McGarrigle. Directed by Tom Harper who previously directed Buckley in BBC’s adaptation of War and PeaceYou never stick at anything

The Witches (1990)

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You can never be sure if it’s a witch you’re looking at or a kind lady. Little American boy Luke Eveshim (Jasen Fisher) is holidaying with his Norwegian grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling) who regales him with stories of witches, female demons masquerading as normal women but possessing undending hatred of children.  Helga’s best friend in childhood was entrapped by one of them in a painting and eventually faded from view. When Luke’s parents die his grandmother becomes his guardian and sends him to boarding school where he evades the attention of one such witch (Anne Lambton) and during the holidays at a seaside resort Luke become aware that witches are holding their annual British convention as The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children led by the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston).  When he and another boy Bruno (Charlie Potter) are in their midst they encounter a life-changing transformation into mice and have to avoid all sorts of predators as they try to escape to safety experiencing an actual cat and mouse chase … Real witches hate children! Adapted by Allan Scott from Roald Dahl’s darkly comic book, the biggest surprise to fans of Nicolas Roeg is that he directed it (perhaps not when you consider he had young sons at the time) but it has some of his recognisable tropes as well as a crew of his regular collaborators, including Scott, costumier Marit Allen and editor Tony Lawson in a production from Henson Studios with all that firm’s puppeteering and effects skills to the fore. The trick of balancing realism with fantasy, humour with horror, and scares for children (Roeg edited out more morbid material after seeing one of his children’s reactions) with jokes for adults, is perfectly achieved in this ambitious comic drama with Huston camping it up appositely to Zetterling’s caring grandmother. How is the room service here?/Diabolical./ Good! A third of the film is the adventure the boys have as mice, attempting to avoid becoming part of the hotel’s dinner menu, and there’s a marvellous payoff with formerly fat Bruno achieving his mother’s (Brenda Blethyn) ambition that he lose weight. The (happy) ending is different from that in the book and Dahl hated it and threatened to publicly campaign against it (Jim Henson dissuaded him) but overall it retains his casual cruelty and wit. Stanley Myers’ score is amped up with excerpts from Dies irae here and there to sound like Berlioz’ The Witches’ Sabbath. Shot in Bergen, Newquay and at Bray Studios, this was the last feature to involve the great Henson and the final one of Dahl’s books to be adapted prior to his own demise. A foolish witch without a brain, must sizzle into fire and flame! A witch who dares to say I’m wrong, will not be with us… VERY LONG!

 

 

Joker (2019)

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Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?  Former psych hospital inmate, children’s party clown and wannabe standup Arthur ‘Happy’ Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lives with his sick mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and dreams of appearing on Murray Franklin’s (Robert De Niro) cheesy nightly TV show which they watch together. Gotham City is rife with crime and unemployment, leaving segments of the population disenfranchised and impoverished with billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) in the running for Mayor. Penny was a former employee in the Wayne household and repeatedly writes him letters asking for money. Arthur suffers from a disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times, and depends on social services for medication and weekly meetings with a social worker. After a gang attacks him in an alley, Arthur’s co-worker, Randall (Glenn Fleshler) gives him a gun for self-defence. Arthur invites his neighbour, cynical single mother Sophie (Zazie Beetz), to his stand-up comedy show, and they begin dating. When he witnesses three Wall Street guys harassing a woman on the subway train he opens fire and kills them and the city is suddenly awash in a movement of men in clown masks that threatens violent disorder in copycat clown costumes  … I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realise, it’s a comedy. A perverse DC origins story written by director Todd Phillips with Scott Silver, this owes much to its setting – 1981, a city on its haunches, with human filth and institutional grime, and cinematic influences: Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and of course Taxi Driver (Paul Schrader’s real-life inspiration was Arthur Bremer) which is interesting in the light of the maestro’s recent (highly derogatory) comments on superhero movies. And there’s Travis Bickle/Rupert Pupkin himself, De Niro, as the Jerry Lewis-type prism for Arthur’s fantasies of celebrity. And it’s modelled on classic psychodrama, up to a point. It hedges its bets by flailing determinedly in all directions ticking the usual boxes – sociological, pathological, neurological, daddy issues, a mad mother, illegitimacy, until its second hour descends into predictable ultraviolence (after that first exhibition at 30 minutes) albeit with this raft of reasons the wind at his back, you can’t blame Arthur, which is of course the whole point of this graphic novel brought to life. He’s a product of everything around him as well as the noises in his head so there’s no mystery left unturned. That neurological condition that makes him laugh long and loud and inappropriately turns into an unwelcome noise in the audience’s collective head too because we can see as he cannot that his talent lies not in comedy but in killing. Gotham City is no longer a pretend New York because the first three victims of Arthur’s vigilanteism are Wall Street employees of his all-powerful putative father, which is how the Wayne story is woven into this tapestry of excuses as if someone had written an elaborate series of backstories and decided to use every single one of them:  Oedipus writ large in a realist portrait of Bernhard Goetz-era NYC. There is literally nothing left to chance or ponder about this ugly individual and as we all know, bastards always blame other people and seek revenge for their no-name status. In this amorality tale he murders his mother to attempt to get close to his alleged father. And we all know what happens to Thomas Wayne because the Batman universe is ours.  It’s difficult to fault Phoenix’s bravura performance but much hinges on his harelip and innate ugliness which he just accentuates into unpleasant anorectic thinness to manufacture an urban monster. This Joker isn’t funny any more. How bizarre that the wonderful River Phoenix died 26 years ago today and it’s his brother Leaf who’s making the headlines. I feel like I know you – I’ve been watching you forever

 

Boy Erased (2018)

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I wish this had never happened but I thank God that it did. Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), the only son of a car dealer and small-town Baptist pastor Marshall (Russell Crowe), must overcome the fallout after being outed as gay to his parents following a violent sexual encounter at college, the truth of which he doesn’t wish to reveal. His father and mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) struggle to reconcile their love for their son with their beliefs and Marshall approaches fellow pastors for advice. Fearing a loss of family, friends and community as Marshall is attempting to becoming a full-time preacher at his church, Jared is pressured into attending a conversion therapy programme called The Source. He comes into conflict with its leader Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton) and begins his journey to finding his own voice and accepting his true self but not before a session of abject bullying perpetrated against fellow inmate Cameron (Britton Sear) has a devastating outcome …  Our family is so normal. The note of dreariness inbuilt from the first shot in actor Joel Edgerton’s sophomore directing outing after the superb home invasion horror The Gift is misleading and thankfully almost immediately dispatched.  Earnestness swiftly and happily becomes a victim of a suspenseful writing and directing style, Garrard Conley’s tangled memoir of evangelism and gay conversion camps transformed into something like a psychological thriller.  The performances, the hot-button topic and the treatment conspire to elevate this into a work pervaded by fear – from the militaristic therapy style (by Flea!); the horrible gay rape by student Henry (Joe Alwyn) immediately followed by its perpetrator’s desire to confess; and the prospect of a life under the guidance of a subliterate evangelical programme leader who replaces great literature like Lolita and teens’ diaries with misspelled handbooks (Almighty Dog) and gene-o-grams that seek to out family members (A for Alcohol, Ab for Abortion … etc) in an atmosphere where the word ‘intellectual’ is rhymed with ‘sexual’.  And it becomes a battle of the sexes with an angry mother finally strong enough to put a halt to the misguided form of masculinity threatened by difference. Enough said. But it’s never often enough, in this depiction of a perverted  and sinister take on Christianity which has its coda in the end credits with tension dissipated and history overtaking the story. Edgerton is proving a highly interesting filmmaker, isn’t he? I’m gay, and I’m your son. And neither of those things are going to change. Okay? So let’s deal with that!

Count Yorga, Vampire (1970)

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Aka The Loves of Count Yorga, Vampire. Would you care now to see that which you don’t want to see? Conducting a seance at the home of his recently dead lover’s daughter Donna (Donna Anders), the suave Bulgarian emigré Count Yorga (Robert Quarry) is concealing a bloodthirsty secret at his secluded mansion. Unbeknownst to her husband Michael (producer Michael MacReady) and other guests, Donna succumbs to the vampire’s curse. Friends Paul (Michael Murphy) and Erica (Judith Lang) go to his house where they are eventually overcome – but not before enjoying a vigorous sex session in their VW camper van – and back at home Michael realises Donna is missing from their bed and he calls his friend Dr Jim Hayes (Roger Perry) a blood specialist and they undertake to rescue her from the man they believe is a vampire armed with broom handles and makeshift crucifixes … I’m the forty-seventh nut to report a vampire in the city in the past fourteen hours. Writer/director Bob Kelljan overcomes a low budget with a singularly stylish work which takes vampirism deadly seriously. From a nice overhead shot of a port in Southern California, where we presume this contemporary iteration of Count Dracula has entered the country in the manner of his predecessor at Whitby, we enter the suburban realm of a group of friends who just can’t behave themselves at a seance led by their suave guest. Once they figure out that Donna’s mom didn’t get pernicious anaemia by accident they reckon they’re onto something. And they think they can get the better of him. Thus begins a night of cat and mouse, but as he has to repeatedly tell them, vampires are more intelligent than humans. Long regarded as the epitome of the vampire cult movie, this has aged extremely well, as you would expect of the genus, with a really sincere performance by the witty Count. Its origins as a soft porn production are reflected in the undead lovelies who indulge an orgiastic bloodfeast with one unfortunate victim. The voiceover is by George Macready, father of producer and co-star Michael. If we do this we put our heads on the block

Highlander (1986)

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There can be only one! Swordsman Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) from the Scottish Highlands known as the Highlander is one of a number of immortal warriors who can be killed only by decapitation. After initial training by another highly skilled immortal swordsman and metallurgist, Ramirez (Sean Connery), MacLeod lives on for several centuries, eventually settling in New York City, managing an antiques shop. After watching his first wife Heather (Beatie Edney) grow old he is unable to fall in love again however in 1985, he encounters police forensic scientist Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart). He also finds out that he must face his greatest enemy, the brutal barbarian Kurgan (Clancy Brown), who wants to kill MacLeod and obtain ‘the Prize’ – a special ability given to the last living immortal warrior: vast knowledge and the ability to enslave the entire human race. They play cat and mouse through the centuries until destiny arrives in a fight played out on NYC’s Silvercup Studios’ neon sign  … You won’t drown, you fool. You’re immortal! Music video director Russell Mulcahy made the transition to features with this deliriously nutty actioner, a time travel fantasy that seamlessly moves through the ages, imbued with the tropes of Arthurian myth, a beautiful woman handy in each of the three main centuries/locations, a supposedly Spanish-Egyptian Connery speaking in his usual cod accent, brilliant one-on-one combat and wonderfully cartoony car chases. Then there’s the odd brilliant visual transition (Lambert’s face morphing into an NYC Mona Lisa mural) and a mini-pop video to soundtrack band Queen’s Who Wants to Live Forever telling the story of Lambert’s relationship with Scots wife Edney until her demise, in a film that references everything from Citizen Kane to The Duellists and Star Wars. There are incidental pleasures, like spotting familiar faces such as James Cosmo and Celia Imrie. Some head shearings plus a sex scene put this out of reach of the kids but it’s fabulous fun and spawned any number of sequels and spinoffs. Written by Gregory Widen as a class project at UCLA, this had a rewrite by Peter Bellwood & Larry Ferguson. You only have one life

Final Analysis (1992)

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She chooses he who must choose her. San Francisco psychologist Isaac Barr (Richard Gere) is treating Diana Baylor (Uma Thurman) for OCD and she tells him of her particularly vivid dreams and difficult childhood. When he talks with her sister, Heather (Kim Basinger), about their troubled upbringing, he finds his attentions shifting away from his patient. Heather comes on to him, and he falls head over heels, leading to a secret affair complicated by Heather’s violently jealous Greek gangster husband, Jimmy (Eric Roberts). But the complications don’t end there, as Heather may or may not need some serious psychological help herself when she kills her husband while under the influence of alcohol ... Did any of these eighty-seven patients beat their spouses to death? You could make the case for this as an elaborate play on Hitchcockiana, particularly Vertigo, with actresses called Kim getting frisky in San Francisco; or it’s a discourse on the narrative aspects of Freud;  or it’s about the impact of child abuse; and the condition of pathological intoxication discussed here and occasionally induced when some of us watch Gere, never mind when Heather imbibes just one sip of alcohol. And it’s all of these things, together with another nod to Hitch with some great hairdos, numbering a brilliant frightwig for Paul Guilfoyle as District Attorney Mike O’Brien which he doesn’t sport in court, just in shadowy offices. And what about that fabulously phallic lighthouse!  Or you could just say that this is what it is – outrageously fun entertainment with Basinger showing us a huge range in a really great role from cowering terrified wife to deranged gun-wielding murderess. Screenwriter Wesley Strick (remember him?) based his premise on an idea by forensic psychiatrist Robert H. Berger (there were rewrites by TV comedy writer Susan Harris) and it’s directed by Phil Joanou who has made a brilliantly overwrought thriller with a stunningly multi-referential finale. Crazy good with atmospheric photography by Jordan Cronenweth whose final film this was. Sometimes a violet is just a violet

Steel Country (2018)

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Aka A Dark Place. With a dead kid there’s almost always abuse first. In smalltown rural Pennsylvania garbage truck driver Donny Devlin (Andrew Scott) becomes obsessed with the death of local boy Tyler Ziegler when the police don’t want to investigate how he is found in a river and he is buried without an autopsy. Donny takes it upon himself to investigate, irritating his initially sympathetic co-worker Donna (Bronagh Waugh), getting an admission of suspicion of abuse from Mrs Ziegler (Kate Forbes), confronting a local police officer Max Himmler (Griff Furst), tackling the sheriff (Michael Rose), the paediatrician Dr Pomorowski (Andrew Masset) whose office has taken a lot of calls from Tyler’s mom and finally suspecting the boy’s father Jerry (Jason Davies). His own disordered personality almost puts him in the frame, until he digs up Tyler’s corpse and brings it to a coroner to prove his suspicions … Nothing ever happens around here. Brendan Higgins’ screenplay is equal parts character study and mystery. The noises in Donny’s head and his frankly unusual disposition are never truly explained, the grounds for his obsession left untapped other than a presumed autistic problem hence a rather narrow field of enquiry. The circumstances of how he conceived his beloved 11-year old daughter Wendy (Christa Beth Campbell) with Linda (Denise Gough) are rather seedy;  his living situation with his disabled mother (Sandra Ellis Lafferty) kindly depicted. Marcel Zyskind’s cinematography peers into the American darklands but other than corruption, the kind of easy institutional conspiracy that seems ten-a-penny in child abuse cases and the interesting positing of a paediatrician as a paedophile (one is reminded of a case in the UK when subliterate vigilantes targetted a doctor’s office, presumably believing that child abusers advertise their predilections on their doors), it doesn’t really ring the narrative cause-effect that is required. However it is tonally interesting and Scott delivers a committed if distracting performance in this ironically titled story where industry has long departed leaving predators free to exploit their working class targets. The ending is jaw-dropping – just not necessarily in a good way. Directed by Simon Fellows. What are you trying to do? You trying to give your shitty life some meaning?